Race in Britain: the best books to help understand

From fiction to fact, polemic to memoir, Nikesh Shukla chooses five indispensable books on race issues

Nikesh Shukla
Mon 26 Aug 2019

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s award-winning book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is a great place to start when trying to understand Britain’s relationship with race and racism. It interrogates whiteness and white privilege and asks us to look at issues around class, sexism, the way our education system is set up and how we relate to each other online and in person. It contains a wonderfully expansive look at the history of black British people and also prompts us to ask ourselves fundamentally uncomfortable questions. Her writing is urgent and powerful and I’ve seen how the book has resonated with young people of colour.

Chinua Achebe once wrote: “Until the lion learns to speak, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Which might be why in 2016 a poll found that 43% of British people thought the British empire was a good thing. Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire seeks to dispel that myth. The book, which seethes with anger and resentment, lays out in chillingly plain prose how the British empire plundered India’s resources and riches and left the country broken.

Like Jonathan Coe’s recent novel Middle England, Niven Govinden’s beautifully poetic Black Bread White Beer tries to get to the heart of the fears the British hold about people from immigrant backgrounds. Over the course of a day, as Amal and his wife Claud navigate a visit to Claud’s parents in the suburbs following a miscarriage, we see the anxieties of the middle classes in full swing. Issues of racism, classism and religion get wrapped up into displays of passive aggressiveness and dogwhistling, and Amal must try to find his way through a section of society that keeps him at a distance.

Eddo-Lodge’s book makes reference to Paul Stephenson, who led a bus boycott in Bristol in 1963 because the companies refused to hire black drivers. In his own book about that time, Memoirs of a Black Englishman, Stephenson gives us an insight into the personal cost, and how he led one of the most important movements in British history, one that changed the way people of colour were treated. The bus boycott was just the start of a career in activism; his memoir documents his challenges to racist practices and his attempts to bring together black and white communities.
A more sober and academic take on racism, and what the writer describes as the myth of a post-racial society, is Kalwant Bhopal’s White Privilege, which seeks to understand how social inequality still disproportionately affects certain communities, despite changes in the law and generational shifts that result in more people of colour being born in Britain.

She examines the move from overt to covert racism, and how it permeates education, the labour market, class and poverty. It offers no easy answers, but its use of empirical research and data makes it a compelling read.

And if you want a book featuring a multitude of British writers of colour telling their stories in their own voices, from issues around colourism to Islamophobia to cultural misappropriation to being seen as “the model minority”, there’s always The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays featuring people such as Riz Ahmed, Bim Adewunmi, Vinay Patel, Eddo-Lodge and many others.



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